Rita Wilson–if she had decided to become a pop star in her 20s, she could have been Linda Ronstadt or Bonnie Raitt. As it happened, she waited a while. On Thursday night, the actress took the stage at Joe’s Pub and in front of friends, family and a few strangers. With a tight Southern California band, she showcased songs from her new Decca album, “AM-FM.” They are all covers of songs she loved from the early 70s.
She had quite an audience, too: David Geffen, Nora Ephron, Brian Williams, Brian’s daughter Allison from “Girls” on HBO, Carole Bayer Sager and Bob Daly, Gayle King, movie and theatre star producer Neil Meron, music producer Jay Landers, and Renee Zellweger were among her guests. Jimmy Webb was there; on the album he plays piano on his famous “Wichita Lineman.” JD Souther appeared on stage, and sang on two of his songs that were Ronstadt staples, “Faithless Love” and “Prisoner in Disguise.”Husband Tom Hanks is off somewhere shooting a movie. But her 21 year old rapper actor son, aka Chet Haze, was in from Northwestern University. Chet’s gotten a rep on Gawker.com for being cocky, but he was the nicest kid imaginable. I think he has to act bad because his dad is also so nice.
Wilson, of course, is completely home on stage. She’s bright and funny. If she said she was nervous, it didn’t register. Some of the songs are just fun, good cover songs. But I thought her versions of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” and “Please Come to Boston” were excellent. Also especially good, a Patti Scialfa song called “Every Perfect Picture,” which isn’t on the physical CD but you can get on iTunes. It’s a great song.
“AM-FM” boasts an all star group of cameos: Sheryl Crow, Jackson Browne, Vince Gill and Chris Cornell are among the A listers who help out. But Rita gets a lot of kudos–she pulled it off. She’s got the chops. Her sultry voice is well suited to the songs, and her delivery is richly textured. Now maybe she’ll change her name to Rita Haze, and let Chet open for her a deejay. Nicely done.
Earlier: Rita Wilson is a talented actress, Mrs. Tom Hanks, and now even the mother of college rapper Chet Haze. But she’s also always been a singer. This week she released an album, “AM-FM,” a cool 70s jukebox that’s already getting great reviews. Tonight, Rita plays Joe’s Pub in New York. On May 12th she’s at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. Decca, still in business after all the changes at UMG, is her label. People are going to be surprised how good Ms. Wilson is. And isn’t it nice to still be able to surprise everyone? With Marianne Faithfull, Bebe Buell, and Rita, all of a sudden the adult female singers are fighting back!
Here’s how Rita describes her song choices from her press kit:
1. “All I Have To Do Is Dream” (written by Boudleaux Bryant)
“Growing up listening to songs like this, I inadvertently learned how to harmonize. I’d be on the beach and singing with my friends and we’d say, `Okay, you take the high part, I’ll take the low part,’ without even realizing that what we were doing was harmonizing. So I recorded this as sort of a `thank you’ to all those artists for teaching me how to harmonize.”
2. “Never My Love” (written by Richard Addrisi and Donald Addrisi)
“This song was so reassuring to me when I was younger — the idea that you could fall in love with someone and honestly communicate your insecurities to them. You could say, `What if this happens? What if that happens? What if you fall out of love with me?’, and the response could be, `Never, my love. That’ll never happen.’”
3. “Come See About Me” (written by Holland-Dozier-Holland)
“It’s a very, very covered song, but it’s a great song. There can’t be too many covers of it. I love that this woman is aching for this guy and making her feelings known. It’s not clear whether she ever does get him to come see about her, and in that way the song is much more subversive than the melody suggests.”
4. “Angel of the Morning” (written by Chip Taylor)
“As a woman listening to this song today, I see it completely differently than I did as a kid. When I was younger I thought, `This girl made the wrong choice — she gave it up, and now the guy’s dumping her.’ But hearing it now, I see it as an older woman saying to some guy, `Don’t worry, I’ll drive myself home. I’ll be your angel of the morning. I won’t let you see me crying.’ The lyrics might resonate for women who are searching for something that they’re just not getting: that emotional connection. It’s about the compromises that you make so you won’t have to spend a night alone.”
5. “Walking in the Rain” (written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Phil Spector)
“I love this song for its innocence. It’s about dreaming what the guy you’ll fall in love with someday is going to be like. I think we’ve all done a lot of fantasizing like that. I remember thinking, as a young woman, `Gosh, will I ever meet that person? Will I ever get the chance to have a soulmate?’ For me, this song reminds me that if you never give up hope, you just might meet the right person.”
6. “Wichita Lineman” (written by Jimmy Webb)
“This song is like an Edward Hopper painting — so evocative of loneliness. It’s got one of the greatest lines ever written: `I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.’ The lyrics say so much about communication, about what you choose to say and not to say. And it’s about the people you take for granted, whether it’s the Wichita lineman or somebody serving you a cup of coffee. Everyone has these lives, and they’re all meaningful and important. They all have longing and people they love. It’s about human experience and how we’re all connected, we’re all the same. This was the first track we recorded and the first time I met Jimmy Webb. Here’s one of the greatest songs ever written, and the songwriter is playing piano for me. I was humbled. I still am, and forever grateful.”
7. “Cherish” (written by Terry Kirkman)
“Terry was the lead singer for the Association but also wrote `Cherish.’ He came to the studio while we were recording, which was nerve-racking. When you’re playing something you’ve recorded for the person who wrote it, you hope that they’ll like it. I was so pleased because Terry said, `I’ve always wanted to hear the song this way.’ I think he liked the simplicity of our version.”
8. “You Were On My Mind” (written by Sylvia Tyson)
“There’s a line in this song that goes, `I went to the corner just to ease my pain.’ When I was a kid I always thought they were talking about Oakcrest Market, which was a neighborhood store on Cahuenga in Hollywood. We used to say, `I’m bored, I’m not feeling good, I’m going to go down to Oakcrest, get a fudgesicle and read an Archie comic behind the ice cream cooler.’ That’s what the song meant to me back then; that was how you eased your pain. You’d go down to the store and get a Coke. We used to take bottles and cash them in so we could buy candy with them.”
9. “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” (written by Danny O’Keefe)
“This song is about people who can’t escape their own patterns of unsuccessful behavior and create a better life for themselves. In the original song, Charlie is a guy, but to me it’s a female Charlie. We all know those party girls who are past their prime. Everybody’s leaving town, and they’re left behind because they made all the wrong choices or they just don’t want to change. They’re saying, `No, no, no, I just want to party, I want to have a good time, I don’t want to have any responsibilities.’ Sometimes people live so much in the moment, they aren’t aware when life is passing them by.”
10. “Love Has No Pride” (written by Eric Kaz and Libby Titus)
“As a young woman driving around and listening to this song, I heard it as a lesson: Be careful, because you can make mistakes, and you might make that one last mistake that there’s no coming back from. To me the song is asking, `How far do you take it?’ The romantic in me said, `I would do anything. Love would have no pride.’ But there’s a difference between what you think would do and the reality of what you’d actually do. When you’re young, everything is so black and white. But as you get older, everything becomes a lot more gray. You become less convinced of the need to be right.”
11. “Please Come To Boston” (written by Dave Loggins)
“When I first heard this song I thought, `What’s with this girl?’ In my mind she’s got this gorgeous musician boyfriend who’s left Tennessee and said to her, `Hey, I’m up here in Boston. Come up here. You’re an artist too. You can sell your paintings, I’ll play music, and we’ll start our life together.’ And she says, `No, no, you’re coming back to Tennessee.’ Then he gets to Denver and he’s singing, `We’ll move up into the mountains so far that we can’t be found, and throw “I love you” echoes down the canyon’–so not only is he a musician; he’s a romantic too. And she still tells him, `No, I’m not going.’ Then he asks her to come to L.A. because now he’s made it; he’s got a house that looks over the ocean and a view of the city. Here’s this guy saying, `I’ve made it and I still love you, and I want you to come be with me in L.A.’, and she just says `No’ again. I thought to myself, `You’re an idiot, woman.’ But I also felt sorry for the couple in the song, because why can’t they work it out? As I got a little older I realized that maybe she didn’t want to leave her comfort zone. Maybe she didn’t want to test her abilities or talent as a painter. There wasn’t anything keeping her there other than her own insecurities and her own inability to take a risk. At the same time I thought, `Why does the woman have to always follow the guy around? Why couldn’t he just come back and be happy in Tennessee?’ Today the song seems much more complex, more about choices and compromises that you have to make as you get older. I love it because it’s like a tragic love story. It’s about people who love each other but just can’t be together.”
12. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King)
This song was so important to me as a young woman, and the lyrics are so universal and timeless. They don’t belong to just one particular phase of life. For a woman of any age, there’s the vulnerability that comes with saying, `Okay, this feels really good and I’m going with it, but I’ve been here before. Is this guy going to be here tomorrow or not?’ I have a lot of friends who are single and they’re still dealing with that experience. `Look, we’re here, we’re in this moment. Will you love me tomorrow?’ Sometimes there isn’t a clear answer.”
13. “Faithless Love” (written by J.D. Souther)
“I first met J.D. Souther in the `70s, when I was working at the Universal Amphitheater. I thought to myself, `Holy crap, you’ve written some of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life.’ I didn’t understand how he could write poetry that was so visual to me. `I’m standing in a hall of broken dreams.’ The imagery in this song is just so powerful. `The night rolls in like a cold, dark wind’ — we all know that feeling of loneliness. I always thought of it like, `Everything’s fine, everything’s great. But now I’m alone at night in my bed, and I’m scared. I know it’s something in me, so how do I fix it? How did I get here, and how can I change it?’ I love the complexity of emotion in this song and, melodically, it’s just stunning.”
14. “The River” (written by Joni Mitchell)
“I think `River’ is about being conscious of what your limitations are but having no control over them, and how that gets you into trouble. It’s about the moments when you’ve said the wrong thing and then wish you could take it back.
There’s nothing worse than being alone at Christmas, detached from the happiness that everyone else is experiencing, knowing that you’re nowhere near being able to access that happiness. I think we’ve all had moments of feeling disconnected. We’ve all had that feeling of, `I totally blew it, it’s all my fault. I’m not getting that one back. Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut?’”